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Sunday, October 1, 2000

Brunet couldn't hack it
 PENRITH LAKES, Australia -- At the moment for which she had prepared for four years, at the moment she had trained for, thought about and for which she had put the rest of her life on hold, at that moment, Caroline Brunet almost quit.

 As the wind whipped the water into white caps on the International Regatta Centre's course and the nose of her kayak thrashed in the starting block, Brunet thought about pulling out.

 "In the starting blocks, I thought for a minute to back up and not go," said the three-time world champion and the favourite for Olympic gold in the women's K-1 500 metres. "But I thought to myself I would regret it for the rest of my life. I'm out here, I'm in the block, I have to start."

 Brunet started and finished, though she had her doubts about doing either and when it was over she was second and the feeling, as the ad campaign in Atlanta cruelly said, was more like she had lost gold than won silver.

 Second to Italy's Josefa Idem Guerrini, the bronze medalist four years ago, second by less than a second.

 Caroline Brunet had been waiting for this day since she finished second in Atlanta four years ago. She had likely prepared for just about every eventuality in her control and some that were not.

 How could everything, on a day she had anticipated for four years, go so wrong?

 It started with the ill wind that descended on Penrith Sunday morning.

 Brunet could not do anything about the wind which gusted up to 55 km/h Sunday and forced the

 International Canoe Federation to delay the start of the regatta for six hours.

 They had a regatta and A Perfect Storm, Part II, broke out.

 There were meetings. Postponements. They tried once to start a race and an aluminum skiff was swamped in the waves leaving the pilot scrambling to shore. The powerful winds which whipped across the course stirred up three- and four-foot swells.

 The wind also created waves of self-doubt and controversy.

 Four times during the course of the day, the athletes started to warm up for an anticipated start. Three times they had to take their shells out of the water.

 Finally, ICF officials announced a 3 p.m. start with a compressed racing schedule.

 The athletes rebelled.

 "We asked them to delay it to 6 p.m.," said Brunet. "All the girls agreed. That's all we asked for. Everybody who lives here knows the wind dies between six and eight.

 "I don't think (the officials) care. They didn't take into consideration the best interest of the athletes. Not to diminish anybody's performance, but this is the Olympics. We've invested out lives, all of us. I hoped they would have had more consideration."

 Brunet's chin quivered as she disected the day's events.

 She shivered in the wind which still blew long after her race.

 The constant warming up, focusing, bringing herself to a state of readiness and then...nothing, only to have to do it all over again.

 "Have you seen the film Gladiator?" she asked. "No? You should. It was like everybody was here waiting for this big show and I was just trying to survive emotionally. I guess I just wasn't that strong. I couldn't deal with it.

 "Today I was just trying to save my life, save my skin."

 She got into the starting block and it still didn't seem real. It couldn't have been anything like she thought about over the last four years. The kayak bobbing wildly, the athletes having to paddle to hold

 their places at the starting line. She grappled with the idea of pulling out, decided to go.

 Not exactly the best mindset for an athlete embarking on the most important race of her life.

 Idem Guerrini, who was third at the 250m mark, took control of the race in the second half to win.

 Brunet said she was just concentrating on not falling out of her boat in the strong wind.

 When she stood later to answer questions and was asked what the silver medal meant to her, she was forthright.

 "It represents nothing to me," she said. "It's the race and this race won't mean that much to me. I don't want to diminish the Italian, not at all. But I won't look at this as a true Olympic race."

 Bitter words?

 Yes. The truth is, the conditions were the same for everybody.

 Brunet hinted at sticking around to avenge this day.

 "I can't imagine not getting what I want," she said. For now, she planned to try and have a good time.

 "I haven't had fun for a long time," she said. "I just want to forget it."

 She thought about if for a second.

 "No, not forget about. I just want to think about something else."

 An hour after her silver medal was won, Brunet and partner Karen Furneaux of Waverley, N.S. finished fifth in the women's K-2 500m.

 "Everybody knows that if the water was calm like a mirror, she wins," said Maxime Boilard, the Lac-Beauport canoeist who was fourth in the C-1 500m, an outstanding result for the Olympic rookie. He kept a reassuring arm around Brunet's shoulders while she tried to deal with the reality of an unreal day.

 "It stinks. Everybody knows she's the best."

 Not on this day.

 Part of being a champion is the ability to adapt.

 Mental strength at this level is as important as physical strength or technique.

 Brunet couldn't cut it.

 Like the champion she is, she admitted it.

 "Today was a challenge, emotionally, too," said Brunet. "I just wasn't up to the challenge."